Two side-by-side turquoise coffee cups in their saucers with foam that reads "Coffee Chat?" and "Yeah!!"
PHOTO: Frank Leuderalbert on Unsplash

Despite its apparent popularity, remote work has its shortcomings. Among the most common are isolation and anxiety.

These challenges are made worse by being separated from in-person interactions and communications that the traditional in-office workplace can provide. It's important for managers in a primarily digital workplace to understand that employees may need more contact and dialog with their team outside of regular huddles and meetings.

According to the 2021 State of Remote Work report from tech firm Buffer, the biggest challenges with remote work are loneliness (16 percent of survey respondents), difficulties collaborating or communicating (16 percent), home distractions (15 percent) and staying motivated (12 percent). These struggles can affect employee productivity, but also their health.

To help counter and minimize those effects, managers should regularly connect and check in with team members to understand their struggles and help improve their situation.

Connections Build Trust

Remote work is rife with meetings — even more so than in a traditional office setting in many cases. Sales calls, daily huddles, team meetings, project debriefs, quarterly reviews and webinars are just a few examples of the time employees must spend in meetings in front of a screen.

These meetings are not only time-consuming, but they are also heavily focused on work. The remote work model makes it challenging to have more informal, non-task focused discussions. 

“As a 100 percent remote company, we have noticed that this work model limits the opportunities for casual conversations — not only with supervisors but, above all, between colleagues,” said Radek Kamiński, founder and CEO of Krakow, Poland-based Nexocode

Good, two-way communication is important for the well-being and engagement of a team. Employees need to feel engaged with colleagues on a personal basis. For some organizations, happy hours and offsite activities were frequent prior to moving to a remote workplace. That's no longer feasible given the reality of hybrid and distributed remote work, which is why remote leaders and managers should hold regular informal meetings with their teams — both one on one and as a team — to allow for open-ended and casual conversations.

Related Article: 3 Ways to (Re)gain Your Team's Trust

Meetings Identify Struggles and Motivators

Most remote workers clock time and complete tasks with little oversight from managers. Similarly, few managers are made aware of the challenges and distractions their employees face in their personal lives. That's a problem.

Among the many reasons behind the Great Resignation, feeling disconnected and unengaged from work is among the top ones given by people who have left their employers.

Owl Labs 2021 State of Remote Work report indicates that one in two remote managers are worried about employee engagement — and rightly so. Employees who don’t feel engaged often experience declines in productivity and seek new jobs as a result. Engaging with the team as often as necessary should be a priority for managers looking to retain their workers and achieve better results overall.

Check-ins Boost Employee Engagement and Morale

Working from different places means there’s little to no chance for employees to connect during coffee breaks or elevator rides. In an in-office setting, catching up on life events, long-term goals, short-term plans, hobbies and interests tends to come naturally, and those are recognized as important aspects of a connected experience.

Remote work limits this type of interaction, making it even more important for managers to make time for more casual one-on-one conversations.

“Check-in meetings play an essential role in building trust and connection between you and your employees, which are key drivers of employee engagement," said Pawel Hytry, CEO of Redwood City, Calif.-based Spacelift

Related Article: 6 Leadership Skills for the Digital-First Era

How to Do Effective Check-ins 

Building trust requires a level of communication that doesn’t come easy in remote work. That's why remote managers need to make it a priority to schedule more one-on-one meetings with their team. Flexibility, however, remains key.

Ensuring the impromptu check-in doesn't clash with other meetings or interrupt a person's creative flow or personal time is important. Doing a quick check-in during a person's lunch break, for instance, is more likely to draw negative feedback than if it's done at a more appropriate time.

After finding the right time, managers should start on a light note, asking how the person is doing and what they are working on.

“It's important to note that check-in meetings are supposed to be brief and to the point," Hytry said. "Therefore, delving into the topics too much is not the right approach."

Some of the questions to ask may include: 

  • Are you struggling with any issues where I can be of help?
  • How is your work-life balance?
  • How is your family doing?
  • Do you have any exciting plans coming up?
  • What excites (or doesn’t) you about working on the current project?
  • Do you have too much work on your hands?
  • Do you have all the tools you need to accomplish your work?

The level of discussion will inevitably vary based on personalities. Some employees may want to draw a clear distinction between their professional and personal lives and avoid giving too many details. Managers should pay close attention to each person's reaction and openness to these conversations, and be ready to adapt as necessary to avoid coming off as intrusive.

Related Article: Why Relational Skills Are Vital for Digital Leaders

Striking the Right Engagement Balance

Even though one-on-one calls are important to connect with employees, managers need to avoid sparking a disconnect by asking questions that border on discrimination or breach employee labor laws. Asking overly personal questions is a definite no-no; it will only accomplish the opposite of what was intended.

Managers must fully grasp the importance of avoiding questions that invade other people’s privacy or make them uncomfortable even if it wasn't the intent, said Claire Williams, chief people officer at England-based software company CIPHR

“You need to be careful that none of your questions are too pointed or direct, especially in relation to topics that employees may not want to discuss or that could even trip you up in relation to employment law matters and be deemed as discriminatory,” Williams said.

Crossing these lines can have a devastating effect for the manager and the company as a whole. But when it's done right, frequent communications and check-in style meetings encourage team-building, boost employee engagement and drive productivity and innovation.